Emma Ruth Rundle is a serious musician with a seriously strong work ethic. She speaks to TGA about the impact of brutal honesty in her music and succumbing to unhealthy habits on the road.
It is mid-afternoon in a cool basement in sunny Portland. A laptop sits open on a table; it is being used by singer/guitarist virtuoso Emma Ruth Rundle, who has been editing a new video for her art project The Headless Prince of Zolpidem.
Between edits, she has also been practicing guitar for her upcoming European tour with Wovenhand, leaving the basement only to run errands, which include putting together a solid Inuyasha costume and walking around a volcanic cinder cone at Mt. Tabor.
This is just an ordinary day in the life of Emma Ruth Rundle. A woman who finds it not only easy, but necessary to keep busy; managing several tasks at any given time, her work ethic making many bands look lazy by comparison. Emma turns 33 in October, and she is one musician who most musos agree has a talent that reaches far beyond her years.
This kind of adoration doesn’t come from nowhere: it was seeded a long time ago. Perhaps it took root with her guitar playing in supergroup Red Sparowes – featuring members of Isis, Neurosis, Halifax Pier and The Cignal – or singing in LA-based group The Nocturnes. But it definitely blossomed when the she found her voice on project Marriages.
From here, she grew coltishly from instrumental rock into experimental LA noir goth-tinged rock.
Stepping out on her own once more, she released two albums under her own name. Electric Guitar: One was an ambient, improvised record, while 2014’s Some Heavy Ocean saw reverb-shrouded folk-ballad vocals accompanied by strings. This album was packed full of three- to six-minute reasons why a whole different musical audience fell in love with her music.
Under the Emma Ruth Rundle moniker, she has songs for everyone; the broken-hearted and optimistic alike. Yet, despite everyone wanting a musical piece of her, popularity hasn’t taken her away from anyone. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
For a woman who describes herself as “fucked” outside of art and music, who grew up working in a folk music shop on a steady diet of Melvins and their rough-hewn cousins Earth, Emma has managed to make sure her songwriting is all for you.
It’s for people to listen to and take something from; at the same time, she keeps her repertoire sacred. As Rundle’s star soars, there is still a sense of intimacy, and a sense that her musical roots are planted firmly at home.
On Marked For Death, her third ERR album, she has upped the intimacy levels, making it even more personal.
“This album looks at the self-destructive nature of the mentally ill, struggling with both addiction and health issues,” she explains, acutely aware that she feels the need to keep busy and occupy her mind.
“The title holds some meaning for me, separate of that in the song; it is a signifier of the end of a time in my personal life fraught with discord. Ultimately, the theme is defeat but also succumbence, transmutation, love, loss and death – very basic human stuff.”
The result is a series of songs that are both personal and universal: the focus is often self-destruction. A compelling indictment of modern times, it’s darker than a Nordic winter and spells out why there are very few reasons to be cheerful when in the grip of a downward spiral.
It’s clear that Rundle’s morose lyrical perspective is emblematic of her present situation. Despite this, she seems entirely content throwing herself into projects.
As she attests, the stark situations and negative feelings that inspired Marked For Death have bled a converse of positivity. The album might be bleak, but it’s also brilliant – particularly track Real Big Sky.
“It’s the Black Dog of this record. It’s just raw and real. While not being entirely listenable to some, I think it encapsulates what I had hoped to accomplish with this record; just pure and truthful expression or autobiographical bloodletting,” she says.
Emma’s new album, Marked For Death is her first in two years. On the last one, Some Heavy Ocean, she experimented with showcasing her voice, which at times channelled Marissa Nadler and at others, Chelsea Wolfe; but instrumentation was uncharacteristically sparse.
Marked For Death, however, has taken a sharp left turn. Emma has gone back to noise and textures, and layering is prominent throughout. While her voice still plays a huge part, it’s more solitary, and it adds to the expansive, teeming musicality. This time, the songs are loud and push their boundaries to the limit. The guitars are swathed in vicious feedback, a reminder of earlier guitar-layered work.
“Getting into guitar-scapes is maybe my favourite musical activity,” she nods. “I think that I was able to take refuge from the more emotionally taxing tasks, like recording vocals, in guitar land while in the studio. I find creating layers and textures a most interesting and therapeutic process. The addition of full drum kit was a choice made – I really had to think about what it would mean to bring more of a band feel into some of the songs. In the end, I believe it was appropriate.”
The feel of the songs has resulted in enchanting cacophonous swells of music one moment with heartbreakingly tender moments the next, her lyrics drenched in mental images of a kind of semi-existence. Even the love songs still end with a feeling of despair.
“I can see fire, I can see where the flames grow, I can see heaven,” she reflects on Heaven, a standout track from the album, which approximates the record’s passionate post-rock textures with a lyrical burst of Old-Testament-style hellfire and damnation, akin to pre-Boatmans Call Nick Cave.
Evocative and enticing, Rundle sings her elegiac songs with anguish. Lyrics like: “Forever want to lay with you, wanting dust to dust to fade out, you’re gone”, and “furious angel rain death from above” are Miltonic in their subject matter. The sadness, bitterness and inner demons are also present on Hand of God, an ominous track where she breathes: “Someone was always wrong, someone is born tonight.”
Heaven and emotional hell are recurring themes in her work. Dylan Carlson is one of Rundle’s heroes – another songwriter wrestling with the notion of even hell having its heroes, and the man who showed musicians everywhere that you can make a career out of plumbing the depths and exercising bareness.
She cites opening for Earth with Marriages as her most memorable live experience to date and she says it was an absolute honour to share a stage with the band. She also admires 40 Watt Sun and The Body. All make music that is distinctly on the darker side of the aural barometer.
In fact, look through her work and you’ll see the mapping of her influences – American gothic in her Nocturnes catalogue; post-rock, sprawling landscapes in the sound of Red Sparowes; and gloomy subject matter across Marriages, reflected back in the sounds of her favourite musical peers, Mizmor.
When Rundle tells us she has “thrashed” her body in this life and it “doesn’t enjoy the stress,” it only makes her lyrical anguish more palpable.
“Because it requires no fiction it’s difficult to lay yourself bare lyrically. It means having to relive and retell. Also committing to the statement – and making it in a somewhat public medium – can be a hard thing to confront,” she explains.
Rundle is one of the hardest working artists around today. Many fans would take a look at the musical projects she’s working on and expect a burnout – in the next six months she’s working on a release for Electric Guitar: Two, more solo material, a split with Jay Jayle which is “highly probable”, a collaboration with Dylan Carlson, a THP OZ cassette, two tours and more. But she’s actually thriving.
“There is no point in recording solo albums where you can check out or take a break. Or in your career for that matter. You must work hard all the time when it’s just you,” she says.
And where better to record than somewhere which allows full creative control? In Marked For Death’s instance, LA’s The Farm was the perfect location for Rundle to make the record: a live-in space shared with engineer and co-producer Sonny DiPerri.
This freedom makes for another honest record, rather than deliberately stitching together something in a more traditional and contrived studio environment.
“Sonny and I both liked the idea of recording in the space, making the place part of the sound. Bringing the studio into a domestic situation also makes getting the most out of available time possible,” she says. “I would prefer to record in situations like this in the future. I am glad to say I was the last artist to make full use of the space there… all of the reverb on the entire record comes from the massive empty steel barn that was on the property.”
On the eve of her 33rd birthday, we ask her if travelling has helped shape her sound and if she looks forward to going out on tour as much now she’s getting older.
“I think I am less excited to be sleeping on floors and getting little food or rest,” she laughs. “I go through long periods of sobriety which I try to maintain but it can be very hard for me on the road. Performing music live is emotionally taxing and I sometimes turn to unhealthy habits for comfort. I would like to believe that these things will get easier for me as I grow older, but who knows?”
Strip away the 40-odd minutes a night a band will spend on stage, where fans nod along, clap and occasionally (this is serious-rock) cheer, and there is little glamour to touring. Especially for someone who has been doing it for the best part of a decade now. It’s easy to see how the recurrences and indignities of touring life can start to lose their appeal. But it’s a necessary part of the job – you can only reach new audiences with the exposure touring brings and Emma knows this.
She admits she’s “a bit of a maniac” when it comes to making music and she definitely has an intense side. That’s hardly surprising, considering she has spent so long honing her craft – her music may be bleak, but it’s also gentle, considered and seductive too.
She is wry and honest, and you can find two extremes in her personality: the expressive and the private.
Her dual nature makes her intriguing, but now that Red Sparowes are no more and she focuses increasing attention on Marriages and releasing music under her own name, she is well and truly in the spotlight.
Perhaps it’s fair to note that at this point in her career Rundle has made the leap to singer-songwriter in the purest sense, and that all the hard work and diversification is paying off. She might shy away from identifying this about herself, but what can’t be denied is that while Red Sparrows were, and Marriages are, undeniably thrilling and intense live acts, her ERR solo material has real, personal depth.
“Every album I’ve ever been part of making has been a unique experience,” she offers. “I will say that recording albums as ERR is more stressful as I feel most of the pressure is on me to execute all the songwriting and parts. I enjoy collaboration but at the same time I am a bit of a maniac which can make long-term working relationships hard as I like to be free to do whatever I want.” She pauses. “That said; being part of a band or group dynamic is good for moving those things along. I really did love to be one of many voices in Red Sparowes.”
Whenever you think you understand Emma Ruth Rundle she pitches something to throw you off. And as she segues into her latest album, it’s proof that there’s no exceptions. The only thing that holds fast is her commitment.
“I have set myself up in a world where I believe I have the freedom as an artist to continue to pursue many different incarnations,” she says. “I hope to realize more ambient music as well as unleash a shredding metal solo on some record down the line. The work so far is varied and will continue to be as long as I am fortunate enough to participate in the arts.”
In the age of auto-tune and disposable pop, it perhaps flatters her to be thought of as being a part of something more durable, and despite her not being equitable in assessing her own merits, even Rundle herself can admit that creating music “from the heart” and constantly striving for more is something she will always prioritise.
“I think being a slave to a sound is one of the most tragic things that can happen to a band or musician,” she opines. “A Groundhog Day or infinite hall of mirrors. My hope is to continue to create music from the heart – in whatever way that makes sense for me in the moment.”
Gazing forward, it’s a certainty that Rundle – restless in her continued experimentation – will delve into new styles of music, projects, collaborations and art projects.
But to reiterate an earlier point, it’s always helpful to have her own unique talent and voice to fall back on. This is the cue for Emma to return to work on her Inuyasha costume, or pick up her guitar, before she reconvenes with likeminded individuals back out on the road. As she continues to represent a diverse tradition of artistry, there’s no doubt that when Rundle is passionate about something, it becomes an obsession.
“There’s never a dull moment here,” she smiles. “I must stay busy to keep the crazy away.”
Catch her on the following dates with Wovenhand:
Sep 21 MUNICH, DE – Ampere
Sep 22 LEIPZIG, DE – UT Connewitz
Sep 23 BERLIN, DE – Heimathafen
Sep 26 ARHUS, DK – Train
Sep 27 OSLO, NO – John Dee
Sep 30 STOCKHOLM, SE – Nalen
Oct 01 LUND, SE – Mejeriet
Oct 02 COPENHAGEN, DK – Vega Jr.
Oct 04 EINDHOVEN, NL – Effenaar
Oct 05 AMSTERDAM, NL – Melkweg
Oct 06 LEUVEN, BE – Het Depot
Oct 07 GENT, BE – Handelsbeurs
Oct 08 CHARLEROI, BE – L’Eden
Oct 10 LILLE, FR – L’Aéronef
Oct 11 PARIS, FR – La Maroquinerie
Oct 13 ORLEANS, FR – L’Astrolabe
Oct 14 GRENOBLE, FR – La Belle Electrique
Oct 15 FEYZIN, FR – L’Epicerie Moderne
Oct 16 TOULOUSE, FR – La Rex
Oct 18 LONDON, UK – The Dome